Drift on the beach in Svaerholt, Norway

These are very preliminary thoughts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be writing them, yet I want to get them down nonetheless.  It seems to me that there’s a very real sense in which ruins present a sort of quasi-phenomenological way of thinking past correlationism or that philosophical framework in which we can only ever think the relation between between the subject and the object and never either term considered apart and in itself.  Within the correlationist framework the tendency is towards idealism, reducing the thing or object to human representations, meanings, uses, intentions, and significations.  In ruins we encounter the thingliness of things beyond the human.  In encountering ruins it is not unusual to have an experience of the uncanny or that things are haunted.  Where does this attunement of the haunted come from?  To be sure, part of the sense of haunting comes from the traces of humans that are now gone in this place.  However, what if the experience of the haunting comes phenomenologically from something very different.  What if what is haunting about ruins is not that these places contain traces of humans that are now gone, but rather that they present us with the presence of things beyond and apart from the human?  Ruins present us with a life of things after and beyond humans, unshackled from our use and meaning, taking on an agency of their own.  In a certain respect, they therefore also confront us with our own absence and death. We are not haunted by their absence, but by our absence. The presence of these things is the presence of our absence.

ref=”https://larvalsubjects.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/barbwire.jpg”> Abandoned barbwire laying in a field in Svaerholt, Norway[/ca

It is precisely such a scenario that Þóra Pétursdóttir describes upon entering the ruins of a stock-room in an abandoned fishing village in Eyri, Iceland.  In her 2012 article “Small Things Now Included, or What Else do Things Deserve?”, she describes entering this stock-room and being confronted with a bewildering array of debris, defying the historical aim of comprehending it and tracing a story.  She writes,

“Here I was confronted with a landscape of things—of something and nothing which I had no means of grasping. This entanglement of non-things and nothings evaded every category, every concept, every instrument I mastered. I could not name them, I could not count them. They did not obey as I kneeled down to tell them apart. Yet their presence was beyond doubt, and even grew stronger with my despair.” (597)

From a phenomenology perspective Pétursdóttir here describes a very strange sort of encounter.  She encounters this mass of things, this chaos of bits of paper and other things strewn about the floor (the photograph is amazing), yet they defy any meaning and categorization ordinarily present in our intentionality.  Yes, they are there and a subject is relating to these objects, but it’s as if the relation is a non-relation.  It is an encounter with the independence of things, with their existence apart from humans.  As she says later in the article, “the things were doing just fine without us.”

There is a sense in which ruins are a blow to our narcissism.  Let’s recall the original story of Narcissus.  He is captivated by his own image as if it were something other.  In a very real sense, this is what correlationism is.  The correlationist framework sees us in all things.  Things are merely the vehicle of our meanings, intentions, significations, and uses.  In ruins we have an experience of the dehiscence of the correlate and the existence of things beyond the correlate, or the manner in which “they do just fine” without us.  We encounter things that bear the traces of meaning, signification, and use, but in a beyond where they have been shorn of these things.  Ruins present us with the thingliness of things or the existence of things no longer subordinated to signification.  This experience is an allusion to that uncanny other world of a world without people and without our gaze that is a blow to our narcissism or belief that things are only things in correlation to us.